When I was seven the world blew up.
I was in the depths of a nightmare when my mother, tears streaming down her face and her voice raspy like torn cardboard, shook me awake and dragged me from bed. I was in the air before I knew what was happening, my favorite friend Fitzy hanging from my frightened grip as we bounded down the stairs and headed out the back door.
My industrious father, who had long before stopped listening to the mockery of the neighbors regarding his hobby, had the door to the shelter propped open and was hurriedly carrying several boxes across the yard from the garage. His mouth smiled, but his eyes showed fear, and at that point my groggy brain finally registered that something was horribly wrong.
The rifle slung over his shoulder nudged the notion further. My father hated guns.
I had been down in the shelter a few times, but was never allowed to play inside its well-stocked and fortified walls. The entryway was hidden inside a small building, the steep slope to the shelter door protected from the elements by what looked like any other garden shed. It was effective camouflage, but anyone who had lived in the neighborhood for more than two years knew what was underneath. There had been no end of complaints and protests when my father had the earth excavated and the shelter installed, but once the sod had been planted on top and the mock structure covered the entry, their complaints had stopped, and the jokes began.
“Look, Prepper Thompson has been at the CostCo again. Now they’ll have plenty of pork and beans when they turn into mole people. I hope they have ventilation!”
“Hey, Zeb, you get to China yet?”
“Do you think he has a second family hidden down there?”
Their taunts had bounced off my father’s stoic facade, and now it seemed the joke was on them.
Slung over my mother’s shoulder, I bounced across the stretch of yard between the house and the shelter and watched as my father slipped the rifle off of his shoulder and pointed it across the yard.
“That’s far enough, Clyde.”
“Zeb! Please!” shouted the man.
The rest of the conversation was lost to me as my mother and I passed into the shed and made the steep descent into darkness. She took me to the cot in the back under the sign I had made claiming it as my own in bold, multi-colored crayon: Jared’s Bed – No Girls Allowed! (Except Mom)
It was dark. It was so dark that once Mom left with the flashlight to help Dad with the supplies, I had to hold Fitzy right up against my face to see his friendly eyes. Out of habit I rubbed one of his furry paws on my nose and stroked his long tail.
“It will be okay, Fitzy,” I said to the wily fox who had been my companion since as long as I could remember. “Dad says we can survive in here for years if we have to.” We rubbed noses and I managed a reassuring giggle.
There was shouting, but I couldn’t make out what was being said. When my parents came back the light from their flashlights blinded me, and it took me a few moments to be able to see clearly again, though still with spots floating everywhere I looked.
“That idiot man wants to mock me, laugh at me every chance he gets, and then when everything hits the fan suddenly he thinks I’m his best friend,” spat my father as he turned the wheel to lock the door. I imagined it the portal of a massive submarine, and we a family of undersea explorers heading on a journey.
Only there was someone pounding on the door, a desperate, pleading repetition that elicited different reactions from each of us: anger from my father, sadness from my mother, and childish confusion from me. I kept wanting to shout “Come in!” but somehow knew it wasn’t the right thing to do.
After a while the pounding stopped, and we were all relieved for our own reasons. For my part, Fitzy was having a hard time falling back asleep from the constant noise, and it upset me so much I couldn’t help but cry.
My parents came to the back of the shelter and joined me. Mom sat on the cot and wrapped me in her arms, becoming the Love Coat that I always wanted to wear. Dad looked down on me and tried to smile again, and in the low light I noticed he had blood on his shirt and a cut across one cheek.
“What happened, Dad? What’s going on?” I asked. I desperately wanted to calm down Fitzy who had become restless and had started to whine.
“We’re safe, Son. That’s all you need to worry about right now.”
That was when the earth blew up. The three of us, huddled in the shelter, Mom wrapped around me and Dad watching the door, held our breath as the world shook. Cans fell from the shelves. The radio Dad had been trying to tune it let loose a series of ungodly noises and fell silent. Everything shook, then shook some more. I began to think the shaking would never end until everything shook apart, taking us with it into complete destruction.
Then it stopped.
The silence that followed seemed to last forever. Even Fitzy kept quiet, which had to be hard for him, since he never liked loud noises.
My parents stared into each other’s eyes throughout the silence as if daring each other to break it. Fitzy began to squirm, so I knew I had to say something.
“Anyone want to play Go Fish?”
Both of them looked at me. My father smiled and shrugged. My mother ruffled my hair.
“Sounds good, buddy,” she said, wiping away the tears than hung in her eyes. “Deal me in.”
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